Mel and I flew over for a quick four day visit to celebrate the 60th birthday of a close relative. Sixty is not really a milestone in itself as most of our pals have reached much loftier numbers but it was an excuse to get together with family before they all expire from too much booze, too much work or too much English weather. Anyway 60 is the new 25 isn’t it?

We checked into our room on the 30th floor of the Lancaster Hotel overlooking Hyde Park. The chestnut trees were covered with their candelabra blossoms and the lilacs and cherry trees were in full regalia. It was the week before “the” wedding and London looked its very best for Will and Kate’s nuptials.

We awoke early on Thursday morning and jogged (Mel) and walked (me) around the park and marveled at the cleanliness of it all with English people striding around with dogs and children with their peachy winter skins becoming ruddy in the 70-degree Spring sunshine. Later on we took a double-decker and went into Clarke’s restaurant, an old favorite of ours that had been overseen by the genius hands of Sally Clarke for 25 years. We had first met her when she worked for the great “Michael’s” restaurant in Los Angeles in the ‘80s. She is the British Alice Waters and her food is as fabulous as ever.

After walking back through the park we had a nap and then dressed for the party to be held at the 606 Club on the Chelsea Wharf. Mel wore a light grey summer suit with a purple t-shirt and purple shoes and insisted that he is now allowed to be eccentric! The taxi drove us through dingy streets, huge warehouses looming all around, and deposited us opposite a tiny black door with steps disappearing down into black gloom below. The cockney driver muttered “Good luck,” as he drove off. Fearful for our lives, we descended into the nightclub to be greeted by booming music and many, many inebriated family and old friends from our school days. It turned out to be a hoot-nanny of an evening and we lasted until well after midnight and left in an alcoholic haze and were thankfully driven back to our hotel by my elder sister and her Italian beau as we might have been mugged looking for a taxi in that dicey area
of the docks.

We ate lunch on Friday in Soho at the Bocca di Lupo, a wonderfully authentic Italian restaurant on Archer Street just off Shaftsbury Avenue. Afterwards, we walked through Soho past Mel’s old haunts where he had sold wine for his London Wine Company in the 1960s. Gone were the mini-skirts and false eyelashes of Carnaby Street and the whole area was filled with beer-drinking, leather clad androgynous young things of all nationalities and origins.

We escaped Soho quickly and walked up Piccadilly and went into St. James’ Church where we were married in 1964. We kissed in the vestry—very romantic.

The next night we went to a fabulous jewel of a restaurant in Abingdon Road just off Kensington High Street called Kitchen W8. It was bizarre for us as it was situated in the space of the old Wolfe’s restaurant where Mel and I used to go in the late 1960’s and which had a fantastic wine list. I remember drinking 1929 Chateau Leoville Poyferre for just 6 pounds a bottle and 1918 Chateau Climens (4 pounds a bottle). Those were the days!! The young chef at W.8 is English with an Australian sous chef and the food is sublime—simple yet one Michelin Star perfect. Lamb’s sweetbreads on fresh morels and wild garlic leaves; chicken, ham hock and foie gras terrine with pea shoots and dandelion greens; sea trout with fresh buttery fava beans and peas and the best rhubarb fool I have ever tasted in my life.

Walked back over the park in the setting sun (around 9.30 p.m. in London), past the great golden statue of Prince Albert that a young widowed Queen Victoria built and left the following morning at 5 a.m. for our plane back to Boston.

After one week and just enough time to get the laundry done, we set off again to Springfield, Missouri, where Mel and I were the guests of honor for a Kentucky Derby wine dinner for an Alzheimer’s charity (very apt for us!). We had been invited by our great friends, the Junge family who own the Brown Derby stores which are amongst the best wine shops in the country. That night we all dressed to the nines with mammoth frothy hats and straw boaters. We drank Tortoise Creek wines and then Makers Mark mint juleps and cheered as the race was broadcast on a monumental screen as if we were actually there on the rails. Dinner was excellent and we drank some super wines including 2009 Domaine Huet Vouvray followed by the always wonderful Fonsalette Cotes du Rhone from Ch. Rayas; then a Pinot Noir from Varner Neeley vineyards and finally the 2005 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon in Mel’s honor. Alzheimer’s received over $120,000 from the week-end events. As Mel and I are convinced that we have Mad Cow disease and Alzheimer’s combined—it was a worthy cause.

ARTICHOKES ARE IN SEASON!

The first luscious artichokes have arrived from California. These bulbous thistle-heads make a really spectacular, but light supper or lunch dish and are really pretty to serve as a starter for dinner parties, too. Just like asparagus they are quite perfect when you just boil them and serve them hot with a lemony butter. They are both just as delicious when you chill them down, however. Artichokes used to be my favorite appetizer in Provence when we lived there. They were served in every restaurant quite simply with a lovely thick mustardy vinaigrette. The bittersweet earthy taste of the heart goes well with almost any dressing but the secret is not to overcook them to death as they then become flabby and turn a nasty dishwater brown. Here are three ways of making them special.

First the secret of keeping the artichoke green and firm:

4 large artichokes
2 tablespoons mild or white vinegar
Lots of salted water

Cut your artichokes’ stems off cleanly as near to the leaves as you can. Take a deep heavy-bottomed pot with a lid and fill it 3/4 way up with water and add 3–4 tablespoons of salt as if you are going to cook pasta. Don’t worry—the artichokes won’t become too salty as they are so hard. Now stir in the vinegar and dunk the artichokes down in the water opening up some of the leaves to fill the heads with water. This prevents them floating to the surface too much. Try and arrange them with their heads up as much as you can. If you are only cooking one or two they will float on their sides and you should turn them over half way through their cooking time. Bring the water to the boil and simmer, covered, for 35–45 mins depending on their size or until you can pull out one of the leaves out with a sharp tug. Cooking them more will make the leaves fall off and the centers become slushy and tasteless. When they are cooked remove
from the heat and scoop each one out with a slotted spoon and turn them upside-down in a colander to drain out all the water. Leave to cool upside-down.

Green herbed artichokes with shrimp (serves 4)

4 cooked and cooled artichokes
4 large cooked shrimps split in half sideways
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped chives
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh tarragon
4 heaped tablespoons mayonnaise
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup heavy cream
grated rind and juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

First prepare the artichokes. Tear off the first round of small leaves from the outside and discard. Remove the rest of the leaves with their meaty bases and arrange around 4 individual side-plates in a circle. Take out the ‘choke’ centers of each artichoke carefully using a dessert spoon and discard. Place the bases of the artichokes in the center of the plate. Whip the cream until it is thick and firm. Mix all the herbs into the mayonnaise and add the lemon zest and juice. Beat in the olive oil and season with salt and black pepper. Fold in the whipped cream and place a spoonful or two on the top of each artichoke base. Arrange the split shrimp halves on the top of the cream and serve any excess sauce in a small bowl.

Artichoke and mushrooms with basil oil (serves 4)

4 cooked and cooled artichokes
8 small white mushrooms sliced thinly
1 cup roughly chopped basil leaves
1/2 cup olive oil (or any light oil)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or white wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Tear off the smallest outside leaves of each artichoke and discard. Remove the rest of the leaves with their meaty bases and arrange in a pile on one side of 4 side plates. Carefully remove the ‘choke’ from each artichoke and discard. Cut the bases into thick slices. Arrange the mushroom slices and the artichoke slices in alternate rows on each plate and make the sauce.

Keep 2 tablespoons chopped basil aside for garnish. Place the rest in a food processor or blender with the oil and the lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Blend well until the oil becomes emerald green and strain through a sieve into a measuring jug. Adjust seasoning again adding more lemon juice or vinegar, salt and pepper if necessary. Pour over mushroom and artichokes and scatter with
chopped basil.

Artichokes with anchovy aioli (serves 4)

4 cooked and drained artichokes
8 anchovy fillets
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
4 tablespoons yogurt
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons olive oil
black pepper to taste

First prepare the artichokes. Leave to cool until just tepid. Place each artichoke

in a cereal bowl or shallow soup bowl. Carefully open up the center of each pushing all the outside leaves away from the center. Take out the tight center of the leaves by holding the point and wiggling them loose and discard. Carefully remove the ‘choke’ with a dessert spoon. Now you have left the base of the artichoke surrounded with the biggest leaves. Prepare the sauce. Mash or pound the anchovies to a paste in a pestle and mortar or in a small bowl with a wooden spoon.

Add all the other ingredients and adjust seasoning mixing together well. Spoon into the center of each artichoke and serve with crusty bread.

Eat well and smile a lot.